Debi Goodwin's love for digging in the dirt was cultivated on her family's fruit farm
It was Audrey Hepburn who once said: “To plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow.” It is also fair to say, gardeners live in hope. And hope is certainly what we all need right now. This is the first in a sometime-series about local gardeners and their handiwork, what motivates them and how they succeed. The Lake Report welcomes your comments and suggestions.
Debi Goodwin gazes thoughtfully over her large Old Town backyard garden, like a military commander reviewing her troops. Too much shade here. That new floral recruit needs attention. Time to prune there.
Everything to its place and time.
To an unpractised eye, on this bright May day, there is not a blade out of place. A soft Monet palette of colours and shapes.
Still, she searches for opportunities to make it better.
A former journalist and forever gardener, Goodwin’s greatest joy is getting her green thumbs dirty.
“I always wanted to have my hands in the dirt,” she says. “I think that comes from my childhood. I was a bit of a loner. My mother was always sorting fruit. So, I roamed alone. I would build forts with the boxes in the dirt and play in the dirt.”
Goodwin grew up in Grimsby, in a ninth generation of fruit farmers, in Nixon Hall, a heritage home on the town’s main street, built in 1854.
She declines to reveal her age. “Just say I’m a retired journalist. That should be enough.”
Her father was a local high school principal and a dedicated weekend and summer farmer. Their 30-acre farm was planted in peaches, pears and cherries. A small vegetable garden grew all the vegetables the family of six needed to get through the winters.
“What we didn’t eat in the summer, my mother made mason jars of tomatoes and such.”
Even as a noticeably young child, she loved working with her father.
“One of my favourite activities was to help my father in the vegetable garden. He taught me how to create the hole and plant.”
Goodwin attended both elementary and high schools in Grimsby. She admits that having to attend the high school where her father was principal was not ideal. She left town as soon as she could.
“I was dying to get out. Went to University of Toronto. I never really went back to Grimsby.”
She started her professional career as a teacher but quickly decided she wanted to move into broadcasting, attending a one-year program at Ryerson University.
During her subsequent 23-year career at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, on the documentary production teams of The Journal, CBC News Network and later The National, Goodwin travelled the world for her stories.
One of her stories turned into a book, “Citizens of Nowhere,” about the difficulties immigrants have when they first arrive in Canada.
And along the way, she also met her long-time partner, Peter Kavanaugh, a senior CBC producer. Their daughter, Mary, lives with her husband in Toronto and, happily for Goodwin, is talking about having children.
Goodwin tried to garden wherever she could — in planters, on hillsides, on balconies.
“I always tried to have a little garden wherever I went. But I could never grow the vegetables I wanted to.”
She resists choosing between a preference for flower or vegetable gardening.
“It’s a hard question. I like them both. I suppose I lean more toward the vegetables. But flowers are good for the soul. My grandmother grew roses and I loved that too.”
Hard choices for someone so dedicated to growing things.
But she does not hesitate when it comes to her favourite plant — tomato.
“It’s about childhood,” she seems to be tasting the ripe tomato as she speaks. “I used to pick them and eat them. When you pick it when it's ripe, in the sun, it is so delicious. My mom would make mason jars of stewed tomatoes. I can eat anything with tomatoes in it. I make my own tomato sauce.”
Goodwin admits she has had some gardening failures, but it's not a long list.
“I’ve tried vegetables that do not work. Last year I had a real fight with rabbits. I love Swiss Chard. I grow it from seed. It would get this high and the rabbits would just chop them down.”
“For some reason I can’t get zucchini to grow any more. I mean, it is the most prolific plant. But mine just kind of wither up and die.”
When Goodwin is gardening, she does not think about anything else.
“I just don’t. I lose myself. Nothing else matters but that square inch in front of me, getting it clean or getting a plant in. And the reward of it is wonderful.”
She describes it as a double reward. “The reward of losing yourself while you are doing the work and the results are pretty fabulous too.”
Goodwin and Kavanaugh retired and moved to Niagara-on-the-Lake from Toronto in 2014. They had been searching for some time, all around southern Ontario. But for Goodwin, Niagara is in her blood.
“We chose our house not because it had a wonderful garden. It was more we bought the garden and it came with a nice house.”
Tragically, just over a year after the couple moved in, Kavanaugh was diagnosed with cancer. The two were married, in their wonderful garden in the summer of 2016. Peter died less than a month later.
During their ordeal, Goodwin made meticulous notes of their day-to-day life and feelings. And she painstakingly researched and planned her Victory Garden, a tribute to the wartime gardens that not only provided food, but purpose and meaning in support of the war effort.
“For me it was about hope. As a journalist, I love research, so it gave me something to research and plan. It gave me meaning, purpose and hope. Distraction for sure. I couldn’t get my hands in the dirt that winter, so I did all the research for it.
Goodwin’s Victory Garden inspired “A Victory Garden for Trying Times,” published in 2019, by Dundurn Press. Her website describes the memoir as “a year in the garden during a time of love, despair and hope.”
Sitting comfortably on her sunny backyard deck, she talks about what her Victory Garden means now. The roughly 20-foot by 20-foot plot has pride-of-place along one side of her large garden.
The Victory Garden is carefully tilled, almost smooth, poised to receive this year’s crop of vegetables. Most of the plants for the garden are basking in the noon day sun, getting garden-ready in pots surrounding her on the deck.
“While my first Victory Garden was about hope and resilience, my last year COVID garden was about calm and the feeling I could control some aspects of life,” she says.
“I think this year my garden is about patience and letting go. I severely injured my ankle this past winter. So, I won’t be able to do the daily hours of work I usually do, as my ankle heals.”
“When Peter died, I debated leaving town, but this garden has been my solace.”
Goodwin's gardening tips
Not everyone starting and nurturing a backyard garden has 40-plus years of experience. Debi Goodwin offers several disparate thoughts on how to succeed in the garden:
- Start with your favourite things. Do your research and make sure you have the right conditions. If you love roses, make sure you don’t have all shade.
- Don’t grow too much at first. Make sure the soil is well-prepared. Every year I do every bed with new soil and hemlock mulch. I have four big bins on my driveway every spring.
- Start bed by bed. Don’t overcrowd it. People try to stick too much in at once. Right light and right soil.
- Visit all the nurseries in the area. I cruise them all.
- Don’t try to learn too much all at once. My father taught me to experiment. Do the basics and then experiment with new plants.
- I would suggest reading a couple of good primer books.
- Soil, light, nourishment and the right plants.
- Prune the roses when the forsythia bloom and put your tender vegetables in when the lilacs bloom.
- And chicken shit. Lots of chicken shit. It is so easy to use and you don’t have to worry how much you put on.